Butter-making on the farm

Mary Taylor
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Farm-made butter is a natural food and no animal has to be slaughtered to produce it. It is rich in vitamin A with traces of vitamins D and E and minerals. It supports bone and organ development. Butter in this country is made from cows’ milk.


I made butter for three years in Tatham Fells from 1958 to 1961, at the very end of butter-making on the farm. After that we sold liquid milk to Libbys at Milnthorpe, one of the local dairies, as did most of our neighbours. During the war Mother made butter in Chapel-le-Dale, but just for the family; Father took most of the milk in a kit (churn) to Ingleton in the sidecar of his motorbike to be sold for liquid milk. Farmers in the villages sold liquid milk locally, but most of the outlying farmers’ wives made butter and sold it either locally or to a local village shop or they took it once a week to the market at Lancaster. In summer the butter was golden yellow from the cows eating grass but in winter it was a pale cream colour as the cattle were fed on hay.


Most of the cattle kept at that time were Shorthorns, good for milk and meat and were milked by hand twice a day. A Shorthorn could give about two gallons at each milking. To produce milk a cow had to have a calf; at that time calves were fed from a bucket, at first with their mothers’ milk and then with a sort of watery gruel - they also had blue milk and butter milk if available and had access to hay and grass. The number of cattle kept depended on how much hay the farmer could make to feed them through winter. The milking herd could be from four to a dozen depending on the size of the farm and labour available. Enough hay had to be made to feed young stock, and cows which were in calf and dry, through the winter.

Separating - it gave a ping!

Butter is made from cream which has to be separated from the milk. In the dairy (pantry) in Tatham Fells, a small room in the coldest north-east part of the house, there are stone slabs with a hole in the middle to drain off the blue milk. The milk was left for the cream to rise to the top and then the milk drained off.

A better way of separating cream from blue milk was to use a mechanical separator; these were nearly always painted red. The metal one in Tatham Fells was bolted to the stone flags on the dairy floor; it had a collecting bowl at the top into which the warm milk, straight from the morning or evening milking was poured. There was a handle on the side which had to be turned; when the correct speed was reached it made a pinging sound. This machine used centrifugal force to separate the cream which flowed out into one container while the blue milk flowed out of another spout into a bucket on the floor. After each morning separating, the main parts of the machine were taken out to be thoroughly washed and sterilised before being put back together for the evening milking.

The separator in Chapel-le-Dale was bolted to the floor in the porch and the one in Roeburndale, where my husband lived when he was a boy, was bolted between the kitchen and living room. The blue milk was used by the family or fed to the calves or pigs.

Churning - it went with a thump!

Butter was made once a week by churning the cream; churning day was Thursday. The churn normally used in this area was a wooden barrel fixed to a frame with a tight-fitting lid; it was turned end-over-end with a handle at the side. The churn was prepared by pouring in water, fastening the lid and turning the handle a few times to wet the inside to stop the cream sticking to the sides. The water was then poured out and a week’s supply of cream poured in. Churning could take a long time and you could hear when the cream had turned into butter by the thumping sound.

Kneading - it was good to have cold hands

The block of butter was taken out and kneaded on a big wooden board at an angle in the well-scrubbed kitchen sink, to remove all the buttermilk, then salt was added and worked in; salt helped the butter to keep. I have very cold hands so this was not as difficult for me, as warm hands made the butter too soft. Then the butter was weighed into pounds and shaped into oblongs with wooden butter hands.

Some farms made their butter round and had their own stamp for the top. The pounds were then put into greaseproof paper ready for selling or using. The butter board and hands were then scrubbed and scalded with boiling water. Buttermilk was taken for the pigs and the churn was cleaned and scalded with boiling water. Our churn in Tatham Fells was in the empty and unused small sitting room called the old parlour; mother had her churn in the dairy and on other farms churns stood in the corner of the kitchen.

There are other types of churn, several small ones, barrel-shaped or glass with wooden paddles. The milk churn was so-called from an upright wooden churn where the cream was agitated by the up and down movement of the wooden paddle.

Keeping butter

Butter will keep for several weeks, even in summer, if kept cool. It must be kept in a dark air-tight container as light breaks down the molecular structure, and it will also pick up odours from other foods. Sometimes in summer the butter dish was kept on the cool slab in the dairy in a bowl of cold water.

End-over-end milk churn

End-over-end milk churn